Gerstle Memorial Park, a popular recreation area near downtown San Rafael, is named for Lewis and Hannah Gerstle. Lewis Gerstle, born in 1824 in Bavaria, began his life’s adventure in 1845 working as a deckhand on a ship sailing to the United States. Nearly penniless, he scratched out a living as a peddler in Kentucky and Louisiana, before heading to California in 1850, lured by the discovery of gold. He first sold fruit from a stand in San Francisco, and later worked as a day laborer in the mines.
Gerstle’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to operate the first Pony Express in Sacramento, then to open a wholesale grocery business with Louis Schloss, another Bavarian immigrant. The business did well, despite weathering two floods that caused enormous damage. In 1862 the partners moved to San Francisco and opened a brokerage house dealing in mining stocks.
Partners Marry Sisters
Business and friendship led to family ties when the pair married the Greenebaum sisters, who had come as young girls to the United States from Bavaria with their parents. Schloss first married Sarah Greenebaum, and on that positive recommendation, Gerstle married Sarah’s sister Hannah. The Schlosses eventually had six children and the Gerstles seven, forming a huge extended family.
In 1867, the United States bought Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million, a purchase orchestrated by Secretary of State William H. Seward. The purchase was termed “Seward’s Folly,” but a group of farsighted investors, including Gerstle and Schloss, bought the Russian American Company and renamed it the Alaska Commercial Company. The company opened general stores throughout Alaska that also served as courthouses, post offices and trading posts where gold, fish and furs were exchanged for goods.
In 1870, the company paid the United States nearly $9 million for an exclusive contract to harvest sealskins from the Pribilof and Aleutian islands. Through this contract, which exceeded the United State's purchase of Alaska, Schloss and Gerstle made a vast fortune by supplying dyed sealskins to a worldwide market.
With the 1895 discovery of gold on the Klondike River, the company’s profits increased as it operated stores, steamships, sawmills and other necessary facilities to accommodate the mining boomtowns.
The family’s wealth grew enormously, but money could not buy everything. When Gerstle wished to rent a holiday retreat for his family in Santa Cruz, he was turned away because he was a Jew. Such discrimination was unusual for that time in California, but the incident motivated Gerstle to purchase a spot where he and his family could relax in peace.
In 1881 Gerstle rented a San Rafael property called Violet Terrace for the summer to see if it might fit the family’s needs. The property was located in “Short’s Addition,” named for John and Jacob Short, real estate developers who first surveyed that part of San Rafael.
After a summer enjoying the temperate climate and serene setting at Violet Terrace, Gerstle purchased the estate of about five acres from Asa C. Nichols for $15,000 on Aug. 11, 1881. Gerstle immediately began making improvements. He added a stable, a greenhouse and modern plumbing, along with separate servant living quarters, including a laundry and storerooms as well as seven or eight bedrooms.
Over time the estate and adjoining properties became a vast complex that housed numerous branches of the Gerstle and Schloss families. In 1883, Louis and Sarah Schloss purchased a neighboring lot of about four and a half acres from Anson P. Hotaling for $6,500 and built an enormous three-story home for their six children and nine servants. Later their son Leon built a house on the Schloss estate, and Louisa Greenewald, another relative, built a house for her family on Grove Street, adjacent to Violet Terrace.
Around 1890, Gerstle built another large house on the lower terrace, since his daughters were marrying and starting to produce families of their own. This house was called the Cottage, although it looked larger than the original Main House. This new house contained only bedrooms, since the families all ate together in the Main House dining room. Much later a kitchen and dining room was added to the Cottage.
Gerstle’s daughter Clara and her husband Dick Mack built a third house on the hilltop behind the Main House around 1898. Lewis Gerstle refused to have more structures clutter the remaining lower open space, so the couple had to build their house on the upper terrace, reached by 42 steps relieved by cement landings.
In 1905 Hannah Gerstle purchased another piece of property adjacent to Violet Terrace on San Rafael Avenue, on which she had built a new stable. The Mack’s house was then moved down the hill to rest where the stable had been located.
According to Gerstle Mack, author of a Gerstle family history titled Lewis and Hannah Gerstle, moving the house was a precarious venture due to the steep hillside. At one point during the move, one end of the house rested on the ground and the other end was on stilts 35 feet high.
The Gerstle estate eventually had 36 bedrooms and 16 baths. Lewis Gerstle continued improving the property with gardens, a vineyard, an orchard of fruit trees and a pavilion built in the redwood grove where the family held picnics in the summer.
Gerstle Mack describes this feature as
“a large polygonal tent-like structure…with a wooden floor, pyramidal roof and open sides screened with wire mesh as a protection against the mosquitoes that buzzed, swarmed and bit during the summer months, until much later, systematic draining and oiling of the marshy areas in the vicinity almost exterminated the pests.”
The gardens were a perfect setting for weddings. Alice Gerstle married J.B. Levison there in 1896, and in 1909 Louise Sloss married Lloyd S. Ackerman.
In her oral history, Miriam Gerstle Wornum, granddaughter of Lewis and Hannah Gerstle, speaks of the orchard:
“Behind the tennis court in the Gerstle property was a big, big orchard of apricots. And I must say I’ve never tasted apricots like those since, all warmed by the sun. I don’t quite understand why because it was very steep, cows wandered about there, and I remember being chased up those trees frequently by the cows. I have never seen anybody climb so fast as I managed to get to the top of those trees.”
A staff of servants maintained the property year-round, although the family stayed in San Rafael each year from late April to early October. During the rest of the year they lived in San Francisco, in homes facing each other on Van Ness Avenue and Pine Street. The men commuted to work from San Rafael on the 7:40a.m. train and returned on the 5:10p.m. ferry. The younger children finished the school year in San Rafael, while the older children commuted to San Francisco.
Marriages and Guests
The two sisters, Hannah Gerstle and Sarah Schloss, lived next door to each other in San Rafael and across the street in San Francisco. The two Gerstle daughters, Sophie and Bertha, married Lillienthal brothers, Theodore and John Leo. The two Gerstle sons, Mark and William, married Heft sisters, Hilda and Sarah. Alice Gerstle married Jacob B. Levison, chief of Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, and the youngest daughter Florence Isabella Gerstle married Mortimer Fleishhacker, a wealthy San Francisco banker.
With no fences to demark boundaries, the estates became a welcoming haven for generations of the close-knit family members. The Gerstles entertained frequently and often served 50 guests for lunch. They loved to have guests and treated them in lavish style. Family member Katherine Solomons Lilienthal recalled in her oral history,
“Every Friday night we went by train to San Rafael and dear old Gould, Grandma’s chauffeur, would meet us at the train, and we would gorge ourselves on fine old family dinners.”
Lewis Gerstle wanted fresh food and richer, thicker milk than could be purchased, so he raised his own cows and chickens. Vegetable gardens offered up fresh produce for the table, and the orchard provided apples, cherries, peaches and apricots. Some of the children also raised ponies, cows, chickens, and pigeons.
Cesare Paul Bettini, an Italian immigrant, served as head caretaker of Violet Terrace for decades. He managed the landscaping, the orchard and the livestock. Bettini shared his love of gardening and nature with the many children who stayed on the estates. Katherine Lilienthal recalls:
“By this time there were loads and loads of grandchildren of Grandma Gerstle with her five daughters and two sons, and all of the children used to spend their time with Bettini. He would let them help with the cows, and gather the eggs, and – my oldest daughter always said that that’s where she got her love of farming.”
Ted Lilienthal, a Gerstle great-grandchild, lived at Violet Terrace for his first 18 years and often rode the family horse, Beauty, bareback into downtown San Rafael. Ted helped Cesare Bettini care for the grounds and animals. In a 1994 Marin Independent Journal article about a Schloss/Gerstle family reunion, Ted was quoted as saying that Cesare Bettini “was a stand-in father for us kids. He called me Tito and he explained to me the facts of life.”
Bettini kept the estate property immaculate. When the Gerstles donated Violet Terrace to the city of San Rafael to be used as a park after Hannah’s death in 1930, Bettini stayed on as park superintendent.
A proviso of the transfer, Katherine Lilienthal recalls, “was that the lower house, as we always called it, – Bettini was living in it at that time – would, as long as he lived, that house would be his home.” This was the home the Macks built in about 1898 and moved down the hill in 1905.
Bettini raised five children in that home, including son Paul Bettini, who served as San Rafael’s Mayor from 1965 to 1979. Gerstle Park contains a plaque dedicated to Bettini, the caretaker, nature educator and beloved companion to the children of the estate. In 1946, Alice Gerstle Levison and her husband Jacob donated a fully-equipped playground to the park in honor of their golden wedding anniversary.
The Gerstle and Schloss summer homes are long gone. The city demolished many of the structures when they could no longer be maintained. A disastrous arson fire destroyed the main Schloss house in 1955, but the Schloss guesthouse still remains, now the site of the Gerstle Park Inn. Today the park welcomes neighborhood children who chase each other on the very same grounds where Gerstle and Schloss cousins played hide and seek more than 100 years ago.
Editor's note: In an earlier version of this article, it stated that Cesare Paul Bettini was a Swiss-Italian.